Fiction, Fact, and Science


Fiction, Fact, and Science



A library divides its books into two sections: fiction and non-fiction. The assumption is that fiction is concerned with fictions while non-fiction is concerned with facts. Science books will appear in the non-fiction section, being concerned with facts. Novels will appear in the fiction section, being concerned with fictions. Works of fiction are fictitious—they consist of falsehoods; works of science are “factitious”—they deal in truths. This is a neat arrangement and it facilitates the finding of books. But it is seriously misleading, if not downright erroneous. The obvious point is that so-called works of fiction contain a lot of truth, especially if they are good.[1]Not everything said or implied by a novel is fictitious, i.e. untrue; much may be profoundly true. Standard dictionary definitions make room for this point: thus the OEDdefines “fiction” as “prose literature, especially novels, describing imaginary events and people”. This is compatible with accepting that novels alsoconvey important truths—they are only partlyfictitious. Indeed, they convey truths byconstructing fictions; and that, arguably, is their main point. About what do they convey truths? About, as we like to say, human nature: human emotion, action, morality, mortality, stupidity, virtue, etc. When you read a novel you learn about human behavior, human motivation, human experience, the human heart. If a novel were completely false to human nature, it would not interest us. So we read fiction (in part) to learn facts: much of fiction is non-fiction. It would not be wrong to place novels in the non-fiction section away from the astrology books or alternative medicine tracts or religious tomes.

Can we define fiction in terms of imaginary events and people? A novel presents an imaginary world of people and things undergoing various changes, while a work of non-fiction like a science book deals only in real things. But this would be wrong, because the imagination does enter into the content of works of non-fiction. Consider the thought-experiment, that staple of philosophy and science: this is an imaginary scenario designed to convey truths (e.g. Einstein riding on a beam of light, a Gettier case). We engage in counterfactual suppositions and ask what to say about them. We thus traffic in fictions. They are not put forward as descriptions of reality, but they help us know reality better; no one is misled or complains of falsehood masquerading as truth. In this they resemble the sentences of a novel. So we could say that works of science can contain fictions as well as facts—just like novels. Both contain both. The imagination is employed in both contexts.[2]And it serves an instrumental purpose: to convey truths. Indeed, I think it is illuminating to say that a novel isa thought-experiment: it constructs an imaginary scenario and spells out its consequences as they are manifested over time. Suppose persons A, Band Cto be in situation S; then such and such would or might ensue. As a result of this exercise of imagination we gain a better insight into human nature (I’m not saying this is allwe get from reading a novel). So science and literature can be said to employ thought-experiments, which is to say imagination. If so, we cannot distinguish between the two by saying that fiction uses imagination while non-fiction (e.g. science) does not. Nor can we distinguish them by saying that fiction is not concerned with truth while non-fiction is, since both are.

My thesis is that fiction is a kind of science in which the thought-experiment plays a particularly prominent role. The novelist is a type of scientist. Recent trends in literary studies have played with the idea that science might be a type of fiction; I am suggesting that fiction is a type of science. What is it a science of? Of human nature obviously: it is a concerted effort to arrive at general truths of human nature, based upon observation and analysis. It looks for causes and laws, hidden mechanisms, deep truths. It is a branch of human psychology and sociology and anthropology—the branch concerned with specific people in specific situations. So novels belong in the science section of the library, the section containing physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. They are works of scientific exploration directed towards describing and understanding human beings in situ. They are not pseudo science or supernaturalism or myth or fairy tale (though those forms can have scientific aims too): they are naturalistic studies of a certain natural phenomenon—the human animal in its natural niche (society). As such they tend to be concerned with particular human types and how these types interact. The form of the novel—a lengthy thought-experiment—is designed to elucidate human types and their characteristic interactions. And when a novel succeeds it enlightens us about matters of fact. Thus there is no deep reason to separate works of fiction and works of fact—literature from science. All are in the same basic business.

Let me cite three classic authors to illustrate this position: Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and George Eliot. All wrote at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the “realistic novel” took shape, and all lived at a time of critical scientific importance. I am talking particularly about Charles Darwin, but there were other scientific developments that coincided with this period in English letters. This was the age of naturalism. I won’t discuss these authors in detail but just make some general observations. Jane Austen writes about romantic passion and its relation to marriage during a particular period of British history; and she explores the many types of personality that populate this fraught socioeconomic landscape. She is particularly concerned with human error about the feelings of other people, but also with the fleeting period during which “attachments” may form and marriage becomes possible and necessary (notably for women). She minutely examines the interplay between money and marriage, with special attention to manners and class. Thackeray is also much concerned with human types, but dwells more on human weaknesses of various kinds, and the unlimited possibilities of human suffering. His landscape (“Vanity Fair”) captures the injustice and randomness of human happiness and misery, especially in the matter of inheritance and money. He casts a beady eye on human vanity and social striving, sharply distinguishing the types with which he is concerned. He is a naturalist of the human condition as it then obtained, often tracing adult behavior back to childhood experience. Heroism is sacrificed to unblinking accuracy in his narrative. His world is ruthlessly Darwinian (in the vulgar sense): it is all about survival in a hostile environment. George Eliot is overtly interested in science and makes frequent mention of it (microscopes and telescopes); she refers to John Locke, one of the early scientists of human nature. It is known that she read and was influenced by Darwin; his mark is clearly present in her pages. She adopts a scientist’s perspective on her subjects, again concerned with human types and their characteristic behavior. She is analytical and objective, quite unsentimental. The reader feels she is doing for human society what Darwin did for the animal kingdom. The naturalistic scientific attitude pervades her work.

The nineteenth-century novel thus enters a scientific phase similar to that of the natural sciences, particularly biology: close impartial observation, shunning of the supernatural, descriptive precision. The novel is simply the linguistic form that the scientific impulse took at that time (psychology and sociology as we now know them did not exist then). So these novels can be regarded as the works of naturalists of human nature—hence as scientific studies. They are not sermons or recitations of divine providence or the repetition of traditional pieties; they come from keen observation of the natural world. One thing that stands out in all three novelists is the dialogue: it is scrupulously naturalistic, not biblical or Homeric or Shakespearean. People are described as speaking exactly as they actually do speak, as if recorded by the author—which is a source of verisimilitude as well as amusement. Here we have the field linguist setting down his data without preconception or prejudice. This is pure anthropology. There is thus no deep discontinuity between what the novelist does and what a scientist might do: both are concerned with the truth, and empirical observation is the preferred method of arriving at it (not consulting tradition and ancient texts).

I think what I am saying would have been found very reasonable at the time these novels were written, but since then lines of demarcation have been more starkly drawn. The concept of science has hardened and rigidified–now conjuring up images of labs and particle accelerators, with heavy infusions of mathematics. Then too, we have the institutional divisions of a modern university (with its library arrangements). But that was not the conception of earlier scientists, for whom the roving naturalist was the paradigm (hence “natural philosopher”). The naturalistic novelist was simply taking this one stage further: he or she is a scientist of human society. The fictional form seemed the obvious way to express the insights gleaned. Scientists and philosophers had adopted the dialogue form to add drama to disquisition (Plato, Galileo), so it was natural to use drama as a way to express insight into human affairs. There is just no sharp line here. Literature and science are not opposed to each other; both have the same ultimate goal. The bifurcation into fiction and non-fiction is therefore superficial and spurious. This is why Freud found it plausible to suggest that works of fiction predate some of his ideas—precisely because they contain insights into human psychology. He was expressing in discursive theoretical form what they expressed in literary dramatic form: the same truths are being communicated.[3]So if Freud was a scientist of the human psyche, then so were the novelists who preceded him.

Suppose that what you took to be fiction turned out to be fact: the novel you just read was actually reporting real events happening to real people. And suppose it contained some startling insights into human psychology, perhaps of a general nature. The same insights might be discovered by a psychologist who chooses to express them in non-fiction form. Wouldn’t that be enough to warrant describing the novel as a scientific work? But any novel could turn out to be factually true—that is always an epistemic possibility. So, if the novel contains information that would count as scientific outside of the novel form, wouldn’t that make it count as scientific itself? The fact that a standard novel uses a thought-experiment to establish general factual truths should not detract from its status as a scientific work—any more than thought-experiments in physics render physics non-scientific. I would say that the three novelists I mentioned were not only scientists but great scientists—right up there with Darwin and company. They delved deep into the human soul.[4]



[1]Of course, if novels describe possible worlds, and possible worlds are real, then novels describe reality, so that everything they say is literally true of somepossible world. But I will put this on one side and consider only what they say about the actual world.

[2]The imagination is also involved in the creation of scientific theories, as has often been noted. Science also employs idealizations and “useful fictions”. It is not just the bare recording of fact.

[3]I don’t mean to suggest that I think Freud’s theories are true (on the contrary), but it was not wrong of him to find in literature a fund of psychological knowledge. The idea that academic psychology will never overtake literature as a source of psychological insight is also not wide of the mark, suggesting that literature constitutes a superiortype of science.

[4]Part of the point in insisting on the scientific status of the novel is the honorific connotations of the word “science”—we shouldn’t let them accrue only to certain speciesof scientist.

12 replies
  1. says:

    That’s a rather high and discouraging bar to set for aspiring novelists. Flippancy, wit, and an attractive prose have also their merit, nor need there be any great plot-lines or character arcs. But even this type of novel has potentially something to say—about the author if not his characters. I’m no fan of “de-constructionism”, but there is an element of truth in that benighted philosophy, and why not take that as revelatory as well?

  2. says:

    I’ve always disliked home-work questions—which is probably why I flunked out of college ( they tended to interfere with my drinking). Philosophy is the exploration of the logically possible. Science narrows the field, by both codified and uncodified methods of theory-building and experimentation. Couldn’t both “science” and “philosophy” be family resemblance concepts!! Indeed, the quintessential ones?

  3. says:

    Dictionaries are, “the last refuge of scoundrels”, just to transpose a bit (jestingly-speaking). The arts aspire to illuminate human nature,, sometimes science tries as well. Both equally futile.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      We actually know quite a bit about human nature, combining science with the arts, not less than we know of the physical world at least. Dictionaries are one of the most illuminating type of book–you can learn a lot from them.

  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Is this not another example of the now rampant reductionist mindset? A piece of writing can possess different qualities, and often multiple simultaneously. But we mistake these qualities for being things, and then insist that each piece of writing be must made of one of these things.

    I agree dictionaries are a special type of book, as are good cookbooks. But unfortunately what makes them special is subtle and can be easily destroyed. The digital storm is tearing them into bits of information: many people no longer read them, but instead search for the bit of information they are after (or believe they are after) on the internet. We end up with flotsam.


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